Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edith (d.1075)

EDITH or EADGYTH (d. 1075), queen of Eadward the Confessor, the eldest daughter, and probably the eldest child, of Godwine, earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha (Vita Eadwardi, l. 294), was educated at the abbey of Wilton (ib. l. 488), and was married to the king in 1045. Although she is often described, after the old English custom, as the ‘Lady,’ she is also constantly styled queen, and it is expressly said that she was ‘hallowed’ as queen (A.-S. Chron., Peterborough, 1048 sq.). It is said that Eadward, from a religious motive, never had intercourse with her as a wife (William of Jumièges, vii. c. 9; Ailred, 377, 378). A glowing account is given of her beauty, her piety, and her liberality. At the same time it is evident that she did not scruple to accept bribes to use her influence over the king, even in judicial cases (Historia Rames. p. 170), and she certainly behaved shabbily in a dispute she had with the abbot of Peterborough about the right to an estate (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 808, 908). She was as greedy as the rest of her family, and was probably not less violent or unscrupulous than the worst of them. She was extremely humble in her behaviour to the king, never taking her seat beside him except at church or at the royal table, but sitting at his feet until he signed to her to sit by his side (Vita Eadw. 922). Eadward is said to have loved her, but when her father and brothers were outlawed in September 1051 he made no objection to the proposal of Archbishop Robert, the head of the foreign faction, that he should divorce her (ib. 486). Nevertheless the archbishop modified his proposal; all her lands and treasures were seized, and she was sent away weeping, though with honour and royal attendance (ib.; or perhaps in disgrace and with but one attendant, Flor. Wig.), to the monastery of Wherwell (A.-S. Chron.; Flor. Wig.), or, according to the panegyrist, to Wilton (Vita Eadw. 491). As the panegyrist adds that the monastery to which she was sent was that in which she had been brought up, it is perhaps going far to assume, on the strength of the evidence in favour of Wherwell, that Wilton is a ‘clerical error’ (Norman Conquest, ii. 156, n. 4); it seems probable that the queen was first sent to Wherwell with every mark of disgrace, and committed to the keeping of the abbess, who is said to have been the king's sister (A.-S. Chron., Peterborough; Gesta Regum, ii. 199), and that she was afterwards transferred with royal honour, and possibly at her own request, to Wilton, the house in which she had passed her childhood and for which she evidently retained a strong affection. On the reconciliation of the king and Earl Godwine in September 1052 she was brought back to the court, and her lands and treasures were restored to her. She held considerable property. Winchester and Exeter came to her on her marriage as her ‘morning-gift,’ and she also held lands in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Devonshire, and Somerset (see references to ‘Domesday’ in Norman Conquest, iv. 34, 139, 753, 754, v. 803). Like her husband, she made gifts to foreign monasteries. Among these was the monastery of St. Riquier in Picardy. The abbot, Gervinus, was a special favourite of Eadward, and seems to have often come over to England to get money from him. Eadgyth shared her husband's admiration for the abbot, and on one of his visits advanced to welcome him, according to the English custom, with a kiss. The abbot thought this unseemly and drew back, whereat the queen was greatly offended. The king and divers nobles, however, pointed out to her that his self-denial was worthy of praise because he had acted in accordance with the rules of his order, and Eadgyth was appeased, presented him with a cloak wondrously adorned with gold and silver which he gave to his church, and further obtained the abolition of the custom, which enabled bishops and abbots to receive kisses from ladies (Chron. Centulense, iv. 22; D'Achery, ii. 345; the story is quoted at length, Norman Conquest, ii. 535). Eadgyth's donations to English churches do not seem to have been large. She gave certain lands to the church of Wells (Kemble, Codex Dipl. 917, 918, where there is a curious notice of the stealing of her horse at Wedmore, Somerset), and towards the end of Eadward's reign, while he was rearing the abbey of Westminster, she was engaged in building a stone church at Wilton in place of the wooden one that had hitherto stood there (Vita Eadw. 1014 sq.).

Of all her brothers Tostig, earl of Northumberland, appears to have been specially dear to Eadgyth. He was a violent and treacherous man, and on 28 Dec. 1064 Gospatric, one of the thegns of his earldom, was assassinated in the king's palace. The murder was said to have been planned by the queen at the instigation of her brother the earl (Flor. Wig.) It was one of the chief causes of the revolt of Northumberland, which broke out the next year. This revolt and the bitter quarrel that ensued between Tostig and Harold cost the queen many tears, and she had to see her favourite brother banished from England (Vita Eadw. 1203 sq.). Her church at Wilton was consecrated in 1065, and at the Christmas festival (28 Dec.) of that year she represented the king, who was then too ill to attend in person, at the consecration of Westminster Abbey (Ailred, 399). Before the festival was past she stood by the deathbed of her husband, and is represented as cherishing the feet of the dying man. She trembled at his prophecy of coming evil, for it is said that she had often spoken of the general decay of religion. Eadward thanked her for all her dutifulness to him, and declared that she had ever been at his side like an affectionate daughter. He commended her to the care of her brother Harold, and charged him that she should lose none of the honour that he had bestowed upon her (Vita Eadw. 1555 sq.), a charge that gains significance when connected with the queen's adherence to the cause of Harold's enemy Tostig. On the death of Eadward she retired to her city of Winchester, and there hoped for the success of Tostig's expedition against Harold, which she is said to have counselled. Moreover we are told that she was anxious that William should be king rather than her brother Harold ( Gesta Willelmi, 126, 127). Accordingly, when, some weeks after the battle of Hastings, the Conqueror sent to demand that Winchester should pay him tribute, she took counsel with the chief men and obeyed his order (Wido, 626). She was therefore allowed to remain undisturbed in the city. She appears to have kept her possessions, and even to have received an increase of revenue from the Conqueror when he raised the amount of the tribute that was paid by her city of Exeter (Norman Conquest, iv. 162). When Stigand lay in prison at Winchester after he was dispossessed of the archbishopric in 1070, she urged the miserly old man to provide himself with proper food and clothing (Gesta Regum, 37). In 1071 she was present at the consecration of Walcher as bishop of Durham at Winchester, and, struck by his venerable aspect, exclaimed, ‘Here we have a beautiful martyr,’ a remark that was exalted into a prophecy by the bishop's violent death, which happened soon after (ib. 272). A charter in the ‘Liber Albus’ belonging to the chapter of Wells proves that she was at Wilton in the Lent of 1072, and there witnessed the sale of an estate to the church of Wells. She died at Winchester on 19 Dec. 1075. It is said that some scandals had been raised about her virtue during both her married and her widowed life, and that on her deathbed she solemnly denied that they were true (Gesta Regum, ii. 197). By the king's orders she was buried with great honour by the side of her husband in Westminster.

[Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.); Vita Eadwardi, Lives of Edward the Confessor (Rolls Ser.); Ailred or Æthelred of Rievaux, De Vita &c. Edwardi Confessoris, Twysden, 369 sq.; William of Jumièges, Historia, Duchesne; William of Poitiers, Gesta Willelmi Ducis, Giles; Freeman's Norman Conquest, ii. iii. iv. passim; Saturday Review, 2 Dec. 1876; Somerset Archæol. Soc.'s Proc. XXII. ii. 106.]

W. H.